Building up students and staff in an effort to break down barriers

Photo courtesy of Renee Coleman

As Renee Coleman of Machesney Park, Ill., drives to work each morning, she sets the tone for her day through a playlist of Gospel music that feeds her spirituality. The interstate miles between her Rockford suburb and Sun Prairie East High School (SPEHS), where she serves as principal, pass by quickly as she considers the day ahead. 

Coleman knows she has much work to do at the high school, where she strives to ensure all students have equal opportunities. Her mind races with difficult questions about how to engage students, how to fix inequities and how to eliminate anti-race thought processes. 

Her first step is to build relationships with her staff and students. 

“I make it my intention each day to connect with 15-20 students and at least three staff members to learn how I can help leverage their experience and set them up for success,” said Coleman, who joined SPEHS, which serves 1,400 students in grades 9-12 and nearly 200 staff members, in July 2021. 

She understands that students of color have trouble engaging in white systems. While the school aims to break down the barriers, it is only in the early stages of establishing processes to make that happen. 

“This involves all students,” said Coleman. “We need to provide opportunities to students of color. At the same time, we need white students to understand their privilege and the different perspectives of students of color.”

While it may be a slow process, she understands anything that takes time leads to longevity. She continues to build the processes and charges her staff to get involved, to be abolitionists against inequities.

“We must lead with integrity and be forerunners of change,” she said. 

According to Coleman, the education industry is still determining the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on students. The 2022/23 school year was the first in the last three years without masks, quarantines and virtual learning. While students stayed connected through the internet, they failed to make lasting connections with each other. 

Coleman is working hard to help students relearn in-person education as well as to rebuild the school’s structure after Sun Prairie opened its second high school in 2022. 

“We’re creating an environment where all students feel valued and accepted as their true selves,” she said. 

Coleman leans heavily on God for support and direction. She formerly worked as a financial analyst in Chicago, often traveling to visit her East Coast clients. On Sept. 11, 2001, when suicide attackers seized US passenger jets and crashed them into two New York skyscrapers, Coleman was supposed to be in New York but had stayed home to attend an award ceremony with her son at his school. 

“That day I said, ‘I’m listening, God,’” she recalled.

By mid-October, she left her finance job and signed up to earn her master’s degree in elementary education from the University of Phoenix. Upon graduation, she began teaching at Asa Philip Randolph Elementary School in Chicago, where one of her former high school teachers, Dr. Joan Forte, was principal. 

A couple of years later, Coleman accepted a teaching job at Legacy Academy of Excellence Charter School, started by Dr. Joan and Barbara Forte, where she worked for three years. Coleman later served as assistant principal and then principal at Freeport Middle School and, most recently, as principal of Harlem Middle School in Machesney Park.

Coleman feels it is her spiritual calling to help students find a voice at the table. She is enjoying the challenges of creating an inclusive environment for students at SPEHS and feels the school is in a better position than two years ago.

“I love it here – the kids, the staff and the direction the district is going,” she said. 

Coleman’s hour-long drive home in the evening is much quieter. Rather than listening to music, she converses with her family and friends, reflecting on her day and planning next steps to help SPEHS students get the most from their high school experience.